City Tech Garden Expands Outlook, Attracts Students and Butterflies

By Professor Mark Hellermann
New York City College of Technology

We have been hearing a lot about Brooklyn’s “farm to table” restaurants. Places like Roberta’s, Farm on Adderly and Vinegar Hill House support local farms and grow some of their own produce. According to the group More Gardens, over 75 urban gardens green up the Brooklyn cityscape (www.moregardens.org).  Four-star chefs like Tom Colicchio and Jean-George Vongerichton have their own restaurant gardens in that other borough across the river.

At New York City College of Technology (City Tech), the hospitality management program — many of whose graduates go on to hold positions in top restaurants — is giving students an opportunity to experience the “locavore” movement first hand.  And get their hands dirty at the same time.

Just a few blocks from City Tech, within the new Dekalb Market, the Hospitality Garden is a small plot of soil that provides fresh, organically grown flowers and vegetables for culinary classes. But it also provides students with an educational extension of the college by teaching them what chard, collard and zucchini plants look like; that pea shoots are edible; and that green beans can also be purple.

Last fall students in the advanced culinary classes used tomatoes, peppers, salad greens, kale, chard and a half dozen other vegetables from the Hospitality Garden to enhance the meals they served in the Janet Lefler dining room on campus. This year, the garden, like the young student body, is rich with potential.

The first of April, the Dekalb Market is re-opening its doors after a winter break, and at the garden, hope springs eternal.  Students are planting some early spring greens, pea shoots and radishes to use in a cooking demo at the Brooklyn Food Conference (www.BrooklynFoodCoalition.org).  In the college’s demonstration kitchen, they are hosting a spring farmer’s market workshop. They are collecting fruit and vegetable scraps from their culinary classes and adding it to a huge three-bin compost system next to the garden.  They are also presenting a workshop for students and faculty who want to learn how to start their own flowers and vegetables from seed. And they are enriching the garden soil for a major summer planting.

All this garden time gives students the opportunity to get their hands on the raw material that goes into a gourmet meal from preparation to service. And when students can cook and serve fresh vegetables that were grown a few blocks away, by some of their classmates, they gain a different perspective.   

As Matt Fass, a second-year hospitality management student, said, “I feel a deeper connection with the food I’m working with, and I feel pride that I am able to share it with others. The merging of small-scale agriculture and culinary arts is satisfying and logical.”

This perspective adds new meaning to ‘back of the house skills.’ Does it really matter that a City Tech grad has an understanding of where their food comes from, and a little experience growing it? Well, in a competitive job market, when a recent grad is looking to get an entry-level position in a food service operation, every little bit helps.

Neil Kleinberg, owner of Clinton Street Bakery and Restaurant, puts it this way:  “In this new millennium, it’s definitely preferable to find a kitchen candidate who is attuned to the concepts of sustainability and quality fresh ingredients. At both my restaurants we cook and prepare farm to table, whether we advertise that or not, and we appreciate like-minded employees.”

Of course, not everyone appreciates the physical side of this work. A few students prefer to not get their hands in the soil; but the green space in the midst of urban congestion gives students something else. Last summer, when the Hospitality Garden was a lush little oasis, another active gardening student, Diandra Tobon, said,  “When you are in the garden it is so relaxing; there is no stress at all. The marigolds are beautiful, and it is quiet [mostly] and you have birds and butterflies. Most importantly, you learn and appreciate where your food comes from.”